CHINGO: Well isn’t that nice…
BILLY: Do you believe it…forget my birthday…and see what I’ll do! Last night I heard them talking and I heard them say they were going to “pretend” to forget my birthday, leave the house, and come back in a few minutes later a yell… SURPRISE!
CHINGO: Oh you’ll never fall for that!
BILLY: I’d never fall for that.
CHINGO: That’s what I said.
BILLY: I bet they are downstairs preparing their plan right now!
CHINGO: Well, let me go see if the Lady is awake.
BILLY: So I’m going to just go along with it and see what happens…
Halloween is just days away, and I’ve got fantastical costumes on my brain. So when I saw a Facebook post, with a photograph of the wondrous dragon costume made by my friend and puppeteer, Mark Saltzman, I decided to give him a call and chat about all things puppets.
It all started when I was an actor looking for work. I landed a job working for Disney and Sesame Street where I played “Hugh Mann,” in the live version of Bear in the Big Blue House. Working at Sesame Street, I became fascinated with how puppets were brought to life.
Then someone made me a puppet and that’s where my puppet-making skills started. One day my puppet was damaged, and I got a book to learn how to fix my puppet. After that, I began to make more puppets myself. I had already learned to sew when I was serving in the military as a parachute rigger. If a parachute was damaged, I had to repair it.
Being a puppeteer is like being an actor in that you are bringing something to life, but—unlike acting where the actor does this with his face—the puppeteer relies on his hands. It is amazing to watch a piece of fur come to life complete with emotions. Most puppeteers don’t think of themselves as actors, but they are, because they transfer their emotions with their hands.
Where did the name of your business, Kiwuppet Studios, come from?
My former partner is a native New Zealander so Kiwuppet is a blend of Kiwi and puppet. I lived in New Zealand myself for a couple years and traveled back and forth for about nine years.
What are some of your favorite aspects of making puppets and being a puppeteer?
I call myself a puppet designer, puppeteer, and performer. Being able to look at something and turn it into a puppet is thrilling. People have sent me photographs of a family member, and asked me to make a puppet. They’re not an exact likeness, but they are a pretty good representation.
Who is your favorite puppet and why?
Chingo, a dog I made. Chingo means friend in Korean, which is a nod to my stint in Korea during my military service. I was inspired to make him when I entered an art contest where I had to take something that already existed and turn it into something different. It took seven Costco stuffed white dogs to make Chingo, who is 7-1/2 feet tall if I wear him standing up! He has beautiful eyes and immaculate fur and, for his size, he moves really well. Usually I’m not standing though. I crouch or sit so Chingo looks like he’s sitting pretty or begging.
Aside from puppets you write scripts?
I had ideas in my head when I performed with my puppets. I kept looking for stories to perform with and couldn’t find what I liked, so I wrote a story about a boy and an alien.
Then, when I was living in New Zealand, I wrote one another script about a mermaid. In this story the mermaid is scared of a witch. I try to incorporate a deeper message in the theme of my scripts. The message in the mermaid script is: Don’t judge someone by the way they look– you might imagine someone is a certain way, but it may not be true. I want my scripts to teach the audience something–and–make kids laugh (mom and dad too!).
You also created a portable stage?
Yes. A friend in Seattle, who is an engineer, helped me design it. I wanted something more elaborate than the typical child-sized puppet box with a curtain, so we build an 8x8x8-foot stage complete with lights, a smoke machine, and a sound system. It has an upper and lower level. We took it for a test run and filmed the reaction of the kids and parents, which helped me edit my first script. PVC parts and black velvet fabric are the materials we used, and it all folds up. Home ceilings are are generally around eight feet tall, and I can lower the stage to fit.
Most people have no idea what happens behind the stage. There is so much going on! We are usually running around, and most puppet shows have two of every puppet. If you were behind the stage, you would see puppets being tossed all over the place.
What is the future for Kiwuppet Studios—where would you like to see your business go?
I believe you have to follow your passion in life, and share the skills and gifts you have with other people. For me, that’s the meaning of life. Puppetry is dying art and building puppets is really a dying art. I’d like more people to have an opportunity to experience puppetry.
Every year there is a National Puppetry Conference at Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. O’Neill donated his home for the betterment of the arts, and puppeteers come from all over the world to teach and attend courses. There are amazing shows for the public. In fact Avenue Q was created at this theater. I just love seeing so many people coming together to say: I have this idea and I want to share my experience. The age range of attendees in huge and they represent a wide range of styles from traditional puppets to marionettes, even Bunraku (Japanese-style puppets). I feel lucky to be able to be a part of this.
Down the road I can see myself making more music videos, like the video I made with Jason Eli. I’d like to do more puppet shows, make more puppets and costumes too. I’ve made some fun Halloween costumes, like the dragon you saw on Facebook. Anything I can manipulate with my hands I’ll make!
Note: Mark Saltzman currently lives in the Grand Rapids area. If you are lucky enough to be in his geographic vicinity, have him perform a puppet show at your next party! He also has connections to Seattle and is still a resident of New Zealand.
Check out Kiwuppet Studios! And to see the puppet Mark made for DJ, producer and mixer, Jason Eli– in action– take a look at this awesome video: